Originally created 07/25/99

Space shuttle commander stays busy

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The first woman to command an American rocketship, Eileen Collins, has been so busy in orbit she hasn't had time to think about her new spot in space history.

"I guess I'll have to worry about history a little bit later," Collins said Saturday from space shuttle Columbia. "I'm just happy that we pulled this mission off. We still have a few more days, so the pressure isn't off yet."

The 42-year-old Air Force colonel said she was "extremely happy" when she and her crew reached orbit Friday, but even happier when they sent the $1.5 billion Chandra X-ray Observatory on its five-year voyage to search for black holes and peer at galaxies, quasars and exploded stars.

As a longtime astronomy buff, Collins said, "I couldn't have asked for a better mission."

Chandra, now flying up to tens of thousands of miles higher than Columbia, remained in excellent shape. The first of five engine firings, needed to put the world's most powerful X-ray telescope in an orbit extending one-third of the way to the moon, was set for late Saturday.

In typical test pilot fashion, Collins downplayed the electrical problem that occurred five seconds after Columbia blasted off. A momentary short circuit knocked out the prime controllers on two of the shuttle's three main engines; backup controllers immediately kicked in.

Collins saw the flashing warning light in the cockpit and knew something was wrong. After being notified it was an electrical short, she felt "very confident" because she had practiced before the flight for just such a problem.

If another electrical system had shorted out, an engine could have shut down, Collins said. And that would have meant an emergency landing, something never attempted in 18 years of space shuttle flight.

NASA has yet to determine what caused the short. Nevertheless, it is expected to have no impact on the rest of the five-day shuttle flight, said Randy Stone, director of mission operations.

Engineers also are perplexed over the slightly premature cutoff of the main engines following liftoff, which left Columbia seven miles short of its intended orbit. They initially suspected an inadequate load of liquid oxygen, but now they're not so sure.

With Chandra on its own, the astronauts used a small ultraviolet telescope to observe other planets, tended to plant experiments, and practiced shuttle maneuvers to be used during a radar-mapping mission in September.

Collins took time out for TV interviews, as did Cady Coleman, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who prepared Chandra for release and pushed the ejection button.

Coleman had a small pink ribbon, a symbol of breast cancer research, pinned to her shirt. She said before the flight she wanted to draw attention to the disease given that this was "a women's mission."

The two women -- who are flying with three men -- said their high-profile roles aboard Columbia hopefully will show young girls that they, too, can do anything.

"The message is, if you have a dream and you want to reach for the stars, so to speak, you can do it. But it's going to take a lot of hard work," Collins said. "I've worked my whole life to get up here in space and as I look out the windows ... I feel like it's all paying off."


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